We owe much to the honeybee.

We owe much to the honeybee.

by Mike Weilbacher

Honeybees have been getting a lot of attention these days — and deservedly so. On the one hand, in this age of hand-crafted beer and farm-to-table restaurants, there has a lot of, ahem, buzz about beekeeping — locally made honey with no carbon footprint! On the other hand, bees have been mysteriously disappearing, their colonies collapsing seemingly overnight and driving the scientific world crazy trying to understand why.

But here’s a crucial fact to know about honeybees: fully one out of three of our bites of food comes to us courtesy of the pollinating activities of bees. One out of three, including tree fruits like oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, and peaches. Vegetables like green beans, avocados, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, and red and green peppers. Nuts like walnuts and sunflowers. Even alfalfa is bee-pollinated.

Modern agriculture has been built around the use of beehives to pollinate crops, farmers hiring beekeepers to truck boxes of colonies in when the flowers are ready. Because if farmers and beekeepers know one thing about bees, it’s their remarkable fidelity to ripe flowers.

And it all starts with a dance.

Worker bees — females all — fly out of the hive on search missions looking for flowers, bringing back to the hive two of their highest needs, the pollen they eat as protein and the nectar they process and turn into honey, their carbohydrate. When field bees return to the hive, they dance to let other worker know where the flowers are, wagging their abdomens as they do. If the bee dances straight up the hive on a vertical, the message to others is to fly right into the sun; the intensity of the waggle indicates distance. Wagging down the hive tells others to fly away from the sun. There’s also a crazy spastic dance that simply says: “the flowers are just outside the hive door: you can’t miss it.”

Other field bees gather around to not just “see” the dance and the direction, but taste the quality of the flower—the field bees offering samples from its gut of what it has been harvesting. In no time, a large chunk of the hive is visiting the flowers danced by the original worker.

And deep in the hive is the queen. While larger and differently colored, she is typically immersed in a cluster of bees grooming and attending to her. An egg laying machine, she lays up to 2,000 each day, and, gulp, a cool million in her lifetime. (The egg-laying apparatus of other honeybees becomes the stinger they use for protection — only queens lay eggs.)

So their dance comes in handy here, too. If a successful hive grows too large in size, field bees scout new home locations and dance to indicate what they have found. When enough bees agree, the hive splits in two. Half the group stays behind while the other half flies off with the old queen to start anew elsewhere — this is the swarm you might have seen and been scared by.

But a hive can never be queen-less, so her majesty, planning for the future, leaves behind eggs in special queen cells, larger peanut-shaped compartments. When a larval bee hatches, workers feed it “royal jelly,” a special product made in bee glands that transforms it into a queen, giving her, among other features, ovaries that can lay eggs. The first queen that hatches then scouts the hive for other queen cells—and destroys the competition. If two hatch simultaneously, well, they fight to the death.

Perhaps you’ve read about “colony collapse disorder,” the mysterious malady where bees just don’t return to the hive — they fly off and disappear, the hive withering into nothing. While other factors like invading mites have been blamed, most scientists are focusing on a family of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Because they are chemically similar to nicotine; these are not only toxic, but small doses that don’t kill bees actually impact flight and navigation. Studies indicate bees cannot forage as well and may be unable find their way home from the field.

So when you sit down to eat dinner tonight, thank the dancing honeybee for your meal, and join the struggle to save this very special creature.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org, and tweets @SCEEMike. The Schuylkill Center’s observation beehive in its Discovery Center museum can show you dancing bees up close any time you go visit. It’s worth a peek.